The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932: Public Schools, Catholic Schools, and the Social Order

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The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932: Public Schools, Catholic Schools, and the Social Order. By Douglas J. Slawson. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 2005. Pp. xvi, 332. $43.00.)

One of the primary reasons for establishing the National Catholic Welfare Council in 1919 was to give the Catholic Church a national organization comparable to the Protestant Federal Council of Churches. However, as Douglas J. Slawson demonstrates, during the first decade of its existence, the main rival to the NCWC was not the Federal Council of Churches, but the National Education Association. At issue was the attempt of the NEA to lobby for the establishment of a federal Department of Education and federal aid to education, both of which were opposed by Catholic educators. Beginning in 1919 with the SmithTowner Bill, the NEA and its allies worked hard to secure congressional approval for these initiatives, but abandoned the attempt in 1932. The adroit lobbying tactics of the NCWC was a major reason for their failure.

Catholic opposition was rooted in the fear that a federal Department of Education would lead to a "Prussianization" of American education and that federal aid to public schools would price most private and Catholic schools out of the market. Catholic suspicion was intensified by the fact that two of the most prominent organizations to support a Department of Education were the Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite Masons and the Ku Klux Klan, whose ultimate purpose was to outlaw all private elementary and secondary education, as they tried to do in Oregon in 1922.

Catholics were not alone in their opposition. The educational establishment itself was divided, especially over federal aid to education, fearful that federal money would lead to federal control of education. Moreover, the proposed legislation offended the principle of states rights and local control of education. Most significant of all perhaps was that the Republican administrations that controlled the federal government from 1921 to 1932 were all committed to trimming the federal budget and showed no enthusiasm for additional educational expenditures.

Douglas J. Slawson has mined the archives of the NCWC to provide a detailed account of the way that the U.S. bishops responded to what they perceived as a major threat to Catholic education. …